Hello from Austria – Medieval history up close at the Riegersburg fortress and the explorations of Styri

Having recovered from my action-packed day yesterday, which included a photo safari from my hometown, some extreme hikes and subsequent culinary feasts (to combat any possible weight loss), my last day in Austria had arrived and would also be a exciting. My brother Ewald and my sister-in-law Anneliese had planned an excursion to one of Styria’s true medieval treasures: the Riegersburg, a majestic fortress that was built in the 11th century in Austria’s strategically important border region. Empire.
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Styria is one of the least known Austrian provinces, most people are more familiar with the area around the capital Vienna; the region surrounding Salzburg (country “Sound of Music”) and Tyrol, with its high mountains and the capital of Innsbruck. Styria, although the second largest Austrian province with the second largest city in the country (its capital, Graz), has remained largely under the radar of most American tourists.
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As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most beautiful places, and I don’t say that just because I’m originally from there. In fact, one of the explicit goals of my trip to Austria this year was to see the area that I grew up in through the eyes of a travel writer and put it in context with some of the other areas that I have had an opportunity to visit in the past few years .

Styria is made up of eight main travel regions:

– the Dachstein – Tauern region, characterized by high mountains, great skiing and other outdoor fun

– the picturesque Salzkammergut lake area – Ausseerland

– the holiday region of Murtal, a densely wooded area that offers many outdoor activities

– Upper Styria, another mountainous region that features the “Styria Water Road”, the “Styria Railway” and the Hochschwab mountain region

– Graz, the provincial capital, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the European Cultural Capital of 2003

– Eastern Styria, my native region, a charming region characterized by medium-sized mountains, Austria’s largest pasture, orchards, fertile land, monasteries and castles

– Thermenland Styria, a region full of hills, vineyards and ancient volcanic activities that created six world-class resorts, and

– The wine region of South Styria and Western Styria, where slightly sloping hills full of vineyards and the famous White Horses destined for the Vienna Riding School invite you to an area that is often called “Austrian Tuscan”.

Today’s destination, Riegersburg, is located on the southern border of the East Styria travel region, next to the volcanic region of the Thermenland region. In fact, the fortress itself is built on the ancient volcanic cone of a long-extinct volcano. We begin our journey from Weiz through the Raab valley and the rural town of Gleisdorf. There, we left the main road for smaller roads that led us to beautiful hills, many of which have orchards and vineyards.

Many of these small side roads are official bike trails that are conveniently signposted and many of the local producers have small rural restaurants called “Buschenschenken”, whose garden terraces invite walkers, cyclists and other travelers to sit and enjoy culinary delicacies and wines. of Styria. We found no traffic and, on this beautiful hot summer day, many cyclists were out there doing a good workout and enjoying the scenery.

After about 45 minutes, we arrived at our destination: a basaltic rock crowned with the majestic fortress of Riegersburg was right in front of us. We parked the car in the village, at the foot of the rock and started our climb to the castle. The narrow road has no pavement and is essentially composed of dark volcanic rocks that have many ridges and narrow ridges from hundreds of years of use in horse carriages. We entered through the first gate, which was one of many. Altogether, Riegersburg has seven main gates and eleven bastions. The defensive wall around the fortress is an impressive three kilometers long. The combination of these features made the fortress the most important fortification on the Styrian border of the Austro-Hungarian empire.

The strategic importance of this border region is evident in the context of the Ottoman wars of the 16th and 17th centuries between the Habsburg monarchy and the Ottoman Empire. The East Styria area, in particular, was frequently threatened with invasion by forces from the East. In 1664, a decisive final battle was fought at neighboring Mogersdorf, which ended the two-year war against the Turks. Riegersburg itself was never conquered and, as a result, came to be called “the strongest fortification of Christianity”. It was part of an entire series of border forts along the border of the Habsburg Empire.

We walked slowly to the castle, on the bumpy road that was surrounded by a battlements wall that allowed snipers to target potential invaders approaching the fortress. On an open plateau below the castle’s royal building, there are numerous plaques mounted on a wall, providing a memorial to hundreds of soldiers from neighboring villages who fell during World War II. Each village had its own plaque. Another picturesque gate took us to the last part of the path that would take us to the fortress. At the foot of the fortress is the “Burgtaverne”, a restaurant with a beautiful and large open-air courtyard that offers stunning views of the surrounding countryside and attracts traditional Austrian cuisine.

As we approached the fortress, we crossed two ditches equipped with a drawbridge and the second internal ditch still had water. We were now truly inside the building complex of the fortress and, through a large internal courtyard, we approached the central building, which presents the store where we bought our 9.5 euro ticket in the central part of the fortress.

The name of the Riegersburg fortress was originally mentioned in 1138 as “Ruotkerspurch”, which actually means “Rüdiger castle”, so the fortress originally belonged to an aristocrat by that name. It underwent a major reconstruction during the late 16th century to include architectural features from the late Renaissance. The large ceremonial rooms and the arcade in the inner courtyard date from this time.

Two permanent exhibitions are being held in Riegersburg: the “Witches Museum”, in the winery, focuses on the obsession and persecution of witches who invaded the countries of Central Europe between 1450 and 1750. About 300 presumed wizards and sorcerers were persecuted in witch trials in Styria and many of them were executed. The peak of the witch hunt frenzy occurred during the 30s # 39; The war of 1618 to 1648, when the war and the so-called “minor ice age” destroyed agriculture and decimated the population, much of which, of course, was attributed to the wrong done by supposed witches.

We were planning to attend another exhibition: “Legendary Riegersburg – Legendary Women”. Two very colorful female characters are associated with the history of this fortress. The first was Baroness Elisabeth Katharina von Galler (1607-1672), who was the lady of the castle from 1648 to 1672. In a time of very traditional male and female expectations, the “Galllerin” was an unconventional character and deviated from the usual standards. Women, even aristocrats, were not allowed to own property at the time, and Elisabeth, as the sole heir to the fortress, would have to renounce any property by her husband, but she refused to comply. Even in her prenuptial agreement, she guaranteed the right to decide on her property.

Baroness Elisabeth von Galler proposed a complete reconstruction of the fortress, which included the impressive Baroque White Hall, as well as the construction of numerous bastions, gates and the extensive walls that surrounded the castle. Several inscriptions above different gates show that she spent a lot of money on this construction work. Her husband incurred large debts, and in 1649, she paid him back with a substantial sum of money and got rid of him. In total, Baroness von Galler was married three times and involved in several legal battles with her husbands and the local clergy.

The other interesting female character featured in the exhibition “Legendary Women” is Katharina Paldauf, an employee of Baroness von Galler, for whom she started working at the age of 20. From 1673 to 1675, she was involved in Feldbach’s Witch Trial and was accused of manipulating the weather and participated in witches’ Saturdays. Legends also say that she managed to grow roses in winter, a talent that earned her the nickname “the witch of flowers”. “For her supernatural powers to grow flowers out of season, she was accused of being a witch and was presumably executed in 1675.

Several exhibitions in the exhibition also shed light on the historical scenario of the 16th and 17th centuries. Serfdom and feudalism characterized power structures during the Middle Ages, and peasants had a very difficult life, while aristocrats formed a hereditary elite that had the right to maintain land and exercise broad powers over the people. The majority agrarian economy of the time forced the peasants to hand over a substantial part of their production to the local lords and nobles, who in turn promised them protection during the war. It was an era of extensive exploitation and you had the right to use the peasants. land as they liked. Often, a peasant would require a master’s permission when he intended to marry, and onerous taxes were imposed on the peasant class. These harsh conditions led to many peasant rebellions in Central Europe in the 16th century.

Nobles, on the other hand, lived a luxurious lifestyle. An inscription at the entrance to the fortress indicates that an excessive banquet during the 1600s resulted in 21 days of binge eating and drinking. The Knights Hall, opulently decorated, was the site of many of these fights and a wooden bridge connecting it to another hall was used to relieve itself after all this excitement and is commonly called the “vomit bridge”. Even today the figure of a stooped man adorns the bridge, reminding people of its original purpose.

We were impressed by the luxurious details in Riegersburg’s old quarters, in particular the Hall of Knights, with its boxed ceiling and the opulently decorated Baroque White Hall. When we crossed the premises, the White Room still displayed table decorations and leftovers from a wedding that had been held a few days earlier in the fortress. Today, the castle belongs to the Liechtenstein family, an aristocratic family that has lived in this castle since 1972. One of the family members had recently married. The beautiful flower decorations and wedding menus gave us an idea of ​​what some of these historic parties must have looked like.

We had enjoyed our history lesson firsthand and were ready to continue exploring, so we walked along the long basaltic road to the city of Riegersburg, which stretches at the foot of the fortress. A baroque church and several restaurants anchor the village’s picturesque main square and there is a large lake on the outskirts of the village that features a resort with beach volleyball, water slide, tennis and restaurants.

We continue our long journey across the country to our next destination: Kapfenstein Castle, about 20 minutes from Riegersburg, is also located on an extinct volcano close to the Hungarian and Slovenian borders. Its recorded history dates back to 1065 and was one of the fortresses that protected Austria from attacks by the Magyars and Turks. The castle was owned by different noble families, until it came into possession of the Winkler-Hermaden family in 1898.

Today, the castle boasts a 15-room luxury hotel, as well as a restaurant with extensive open-air patios that offer stunning views of the surrounding countryside. We chose a beautiful spot on the terrace and started reading the menu. Obviously, a wedding had just taken place at the castle hotel because the bride and groom were still carrying gifts for their vehicles. We decided to try some local delicacies, and I liked my mushroom soup with roasted buckwheat and a cheese platter with a wide variety of special Austrian cheeses.

Our late lunch went on until mid-afternoon and now it was time to continue our journey. But before moving on, we took a short 15-minute walk through a forest and some vineyards to a small chapel on the plateau next to Kapfenstein Castle. From here, we had a perfect view to the north and, through an enlargement viewer, we were able to see our previous destination, the Riegersburg volcanic cone.

It was time to go back, so we started our way back to Weiz. We had arranged with our friends Luis and Isabella to join them for a small meeting in the backyard of my last night in Austria. My friends are avid scooter riders and Luis allowed me to jump on one of his two-wheeled machines and accompanied me on a small test drive. I had driven a scooter for the first time and so far only one in my life on the island of Ibiza and I was happy to have another chance. After some initial balancing problems and after we got used to adjusting the gas on the handlebar handle, we finally started a decent start on our little adventure and took an exciting ride on the local country roads.

Twenty minutes later, we returned and sat in the beautiful garden, admiring the large lake that the two had created. We all remember a little about the time in 2005, when my brother, my sister-in-law and these two friends came to Toronto for a visit. It was the first time that I saw my friends again, this time in their territory. We were thinking that in one of these years we should have a ski vacation in Schladming, in Upper Styria, a phenomenal ski region that used to be the site of the world cup races and a place where my friends go skiing regularly.

The sun was starting to set and it was time for me to go back to the brother’s house and start packing my suitcase. I said goodbye to my friends and invited them to come for another visit to Toronto. Ewald, Anneliese, and I spent a few more pleasant hours at his home as I prepared for my departure, feeling quite saddened by the imminent end of my trip.

Without a doubt, this was my best visit since I left my hometown 21 years ago. Nine days were not long enough to explore the sights of my region. In addition to the wonderful connections with my family and some good friends, I learned during the past few days that Styria, the region I was born in, was certainly on a par with many other tourist areas that I visited in North America and Europe. .

The beautiful landscapes of Styria, the extensive opportunities for outdoor recreation, the architecture, the history, the music, the culture and, last but not least, the delicious cuisine will definitely make me come back again.